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Life, Death & Other Card Tricks by Robert E. Neale

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2000)


Robert Neale has accumulated a distinctly interesting body of published work in magic, ranging from the Bunny Bill fold to Folding Money Fooling (a book of origami with money), his collaboration with Eugene Burger on the book Magic and Meaning, and his own volume of material, Tricks of the Imagination. If you enjoyed either or both of these two latter titles, then you'll instantly want to add this new one to your Neale collection. And if you're not previously familiar with his work, this book would certainly serve as an excellent introduction.

One of the problems with many performances of magic is that the performer fails to put himself into his work, presenting the material as an obstacle between performer and audience, rather than as an open window through which the audience can see something genuine revealed by the per-former. The oldest advice on writing is to "write about what you know" and yet magicians consistently ignore such advice, speaking in banalities instead of revealing their own lives and selves. Mr. Neale, on the other hand, combines his various interests with verve and unabashed delight to create a style of work uniquely his own, reflecting his expertise in psychology, mythology and religion (he is a former professor of psychiatry and religion), his love of puzzles and mathematical problems, and his passion for card tricks. This is no small feat in itself, and some readers will require no more reason than this to find the book a rewarding adventure.

For those wanting to put the material into practice, there is much to choose from. In seven sections and 61 entries, Mr. Neale presents a substantial variety of card tricks, virtually every one of which is accompanied by some offbeat and unexpected story. The author has a knack for adapting stories from other sources—horror fiction, literature, mythology, religion—and abbreviating, summarizing, altering and otherwise adapting them to his lofty purpose, to wit: the card trick. There are tricks here adapted from jokes (for example, a naughty item from the pages of The Reader's Digest), from stories by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson, and even Walter Gibson.

A section called Odd Notions contains some wonderful pieces about "gore, monsters, ghosts, demons and other melodramatic representations of evil," as the author describes them in his preface. (Perhaps not surprisingly, this segment contained some of my favorite entries.) I confess that the gambling section left me a little cold, as I have a strong dislike for mathematical procedures masquerading as gambling games that bear no resemblance to the real world; in my world, if I'm going to talk about gambling, I'm going to demonstrate the real thing or something very close to it.

Even Mr. Neale admits at times that his presentations can occasionally reach beyond the practical for performance purposes. I would also add that while his inclination toward rather limited technical demands will no doubt increase the appeal of this material to some, you couldn't use many of these tricks in the same performance because, after all, how many routines can you perform at one sitting with four cards? But Mr. Neale provides excellent guidance on creating your own presentations along these lines; an item entitled "Discussion of a Card Trick" charts the various ways that one can construct meaningful metaphors from the elements of a card trick. Hence even those readers prone to more technically demanding material would be well served by spending some time with this book, and considering how to perhaps adapt some of Mr. Neale's imaginative presentations to other uses.

There are several presentations here for Vernon's "Twisting the Aces," and even those skeptical about these kinds of theatrical approaches might be surprised by committing themselves to several performances of a trick like this that they may already use, accompanied by one of Mr. Neale's scripts, just to consider the results. Who knows? With a few favorable experiences, you might be ready to try some of the several tricks herein that do indeed, as the title suggests, talk about the subject of death—sometimes darkly, and other times playfully—and if the idea of combining such talk with a card trick disturbs you, keep in mind that there's even a card trick here about children who died in the Holocaust. Robert Neale suggests that real life is filled with magic; while I'm not so certain (and perhaps it only depends on differences in our terminology), I am certainly in favor of the idea that magic can always benefit from a dose of reality.

Life, Death & Other Card Tricks • Robert E. Neale • 6" x 9" hardbound with dustjacket • 402 pages